Jul 8, 2020
Shia LaBeouf's self-immolating rage will lead him to death or glory or both
“I will kick your fucking ass,” he yells. He throws a punch and it doesn’t connect. Then his opponent puts him on the ground with a well-aimed slug to the face. And just like that, Shia LaBeouf is sprawled on Ventura Boulevard, angry and drunk outside of Mad Bull’s Tavern. His blood mixes with the gravel for a moment and he is shoved into the back of a car. It’s 1 a.m. and he’ll be back next week.
Some time passes and Shia LaBeouf finds himself in Covent Garden. He’s drunk again. A woman recognizes him. Liquor doesn’t sit well with Shia LaBeouf. One thing leads to another. “I CAN HAVE YOU KILLED!” he yells, and bouncers drag him away.
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Incidents like this, and there are many such incidents, rise above the level of simple tabloid exploitation and late-night talk show cannon fodder. They are unique, characterized by a darkness and violence reminiscent of a bygone era in Hollywood: the legitimately dangerous leading man. Shia LaBeouf’s parade of self-destruction is frightening in a way that reminds one of Dennis Hopper getting into knife fights, or of Rip Torn bludgeoning Norman Mailer with a claw hammer. He’s 27 but has the air of a 55-year-old alcoholic with a violent streak. He’s not really a person — he’s a force of nature. There’s heart in everything he does, not because he’s good or even righteous, but because he’s not capable of lying with any conviction. He is a naked display of honest emotion and pathology, and utterly transparent.
Consider almost any actor who wants to be Dennis Hopper. Consider James Franco. He’s seen some stuff on the Criterion Collection. He lives in Silver Lake. He digs outsider art. He’s your rich friend who reads Pitchfork and is perpetually 3 months away from discovering WFMU. But James Franco will never be Dennis Hopper. His life is too stable. Too boring. He’s too aware of what his next step is. Meanwhile, Shia LaBeouf is staggering backwards into becoming the next Dennis Hopper, by constantly skirting the edge of oblivion and living a shocking, unacceptable lifestyle. Here’s a man who got into his first knife fight at 19. The first director to insult his masculinity with conviction could probably get him to rob a bank for research.
Where an actor like James Franco is always role playing on some level, plotting the next move, LaBeouf seems almost too earnest and unguarded to exist. When he gets into bar fights, you can see the fear and weakness and lack of willpower motivating him. He’s a poor kid who got too rich too fast, and all of his career success is as a liquor store clerk who won the lottery. For all we know, he could be killed tomorrow. He’s desperate and violent, so earnestly unhinged that he’s hard to watch. “Acting is instinctual,” he said in 2009. “The good actors are all screwed up. They’re all in pain. It’s a profession of bottom-feeders and heartbroken people.” LaBeouf is the sort of person Tom Waits wrote songs about before he discovered Beefheart. It’s why LaBeouf has a part in a John Hillcoat/Nick Cave movie and it actually works. He knows the horror of getting viciously beaten, the horror of trying to go to church with a grain alcohol hangover.
Why else does he have a shot at being the next Dennis Hopper? For starters, he’s been in three Michael Bay films. This is important because it’s the modern equivalent of the Roger Corman school of acting, where you learn how show business works by watching every aspect of it fail all at once. An actor who can survive Michael Bay long enough to know entertainment is a con is capable of spectacular things. Between the knife fights and the occurrence at Mad Bull’s Tavern, Shia LaBeouf may yet wander into a generation-defining role. He could be in Easy Rider and belong there. It would require a miracle of editing and the incorporation of on-set meltdowns to the point of exploitation, but that’s essentially how Easy Rider was made anyway.
Recently, someone in his entourage told him to diversify his portfolio, and he listened, and he made a short film. But he didn’t know how to do that, and fear and weakness overtook him, and he got a bad idea. He stole the script outright from Daniel Clowes. That is a spectacular error in judgment. It’s almost too earnest to be malicious. He was weak and cowardly and went too far in the wrong direction to turn around. It is a creative sin self-destructive enough to send him into the wilderness for a while. That doesn’t happen anymore. Not at this level. Not to James Franco. Not to anybody. And when he copped to it, there was no evil in him, really. Just affected swagger barely concealing obvious fear. He was like a boy who studied for an algebra test until he cried and was then caught cheating on it when he knew he couldn’t make it work.
And what did he do when he got busted? Well, he did two things, both of them amazing. First, he plagiarized his apology, which is so deranged that it qualifies as performance art. Second, he hired a skywriting company to spell out “I AM SORRY DANIEL CLOWES” in the skies above Southern California. Here is a completely unacceptable apology driven by a very old school narcissism — he made the apology entirely about himself by going too big and too dramatic. (For the record, here’s how that thought process must have happened. He got extraordinarily drunk, started listening to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” over and over and over, got to that part about gliding down over Mulholland and writing her name in the sky, and he made too many phone calls to back down. That’s exactly how that happened.)
Consider this video. For about 15 seconds, the video seems like it’s gonna be bullshit. Then, at the exact second you’re about to turn it off, Shia’s face becomes visible, and you see things in his face. It’s not Santa Monica. It’s not a Porsche. He’s driving a Chevy Silverado in the San Fernando Valley, and he’s so insecure that he feels the need to stare at people with motorcycles. To feel like he belongs. It doesn’t matter what he says in the video. His face is saying “FUCKING MOTORCYCLES, YEAH, WE’RE COOL. FUCKIN’ BIKES.” It captures his entire personality. It’s the sort of thing Steve McQueen would do if he lived into the era of cell phone cameras. It’s a completely unguarded, unscripted moment, and he’s the same guy here that he is in those Michael Bay movies, or at Mad Bull’s Tavern, and with the same flaws.
Shia LaBeouf is a generational outlier almost, the heir apparent to a generation of lone gunslinger actors who were too deranged to be predictable, who may quit acting in the dark of night to do mescaline in the desert until he finds religion. You hate to see his name on the news, because he’s just as likely to get an Oscar nomination as he is to run over a reporter with his Chevy. And it’s that precise sense of danger and fear behind his eyes that makes him a movie star. Just like Dennis Hopper, or Jack Nicholson, or Rip Torn, he’s somebody you don’t ever want to share a room with, or ask for an autograph, and it makes for the sort of movie star that has all but vanished. He’s the next Dennis Hopper because he needs his publicist above all else to cover up criminal activity.
Back in my traveling days, I found myself in the Burbank Toys R Us, Christmas shopping for my little brother. Just as I left the store, Shia LaBeouf entered it. He was alone. Ragged. Unguarded. I wanted to go up and say something almost, just to mess with him. But then I remembered Mad Bull’s Tavern, and I stared down at the floor and went on my way. I deliberately avoided eye contact because I didn’t want any trouble. I didn’t want Toys R Us to become the next Mad Bull’s Tavern. And in this moment, I realized something: that kid is a movie star.